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The Decline of Broadcasters' Public Interest Obligations

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Publication Date: March 2004

Publisher(s): New America Foundation

Author(s): J.H. Snider

Topic: Media, telecommunications, and information (Broadcasting)

Type: Report


The Communications Act of 1934 and its predecessor, the Radio Act of 1927, mandates that the Federal Communications Commission regulate broadcasting in the "public interest, convenience, or necessity." This continues to be the mandate of the FCC, and the "public interest" part of the phrase appears 40 times in the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

The "public interest" mandate is notoriously vague. Contentious debate over its meaning has been almost continuous since passage of the Communications Act 70 years ago. For purposes of this historical account of the public interest mandate, we give it the meaning: "compensation to the public for the use of the public airwaves."

This interpretation provides a simple framework to explain how the public interest mandate has evolved since it was first embedded as the foundation of broadcast law.